Boehner: The fight to hold the party line

By Terry Golway
May 2, 2014

U.S. House Speaker Boehner holds a news conference at the Republican National Committee offices in Washington

In his latest attempt to impose discipline on his famously disorderly Republican caucus, House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) chose the soft power of public mockery over the more militant promise of private retribution. Speaking at an event in his home state, Boehner lashed out at fellow Republicans who have stymied immigration reform. “Here’s the attitude,” Boehner said of his recalcitrant colleagues. ‘Oooh, don’t make me do this. Oooh, this is too hard.’ ”

He spoke not in his usual solemn tones but with a high, child-like pitch, suggesting that his tormentors were in need of adult supervision.

Back to Baker

Boehner is hardly the first legislative leader to reach that conclusion. Howard Baker, the Tennessee Republican who served as Senate majority leader in the early 1980s, famously said that rounding up votes was like “herding kittens.” But during Boehner’s three-plus years as speaker, he has been notably unable to prod his colleagues in a productive direction. Earlier this year, Boehner was forced to withdraw his own debt-ceiling bill after realizing that, despite being speaker of the House of Representatives and commander in chief of his fellow House Republicans,  he didn’t have enough GOP votes.

House Budget Chairman Ryan speaks during a news conference as he unveils "The FY2013 Budget - The Path to Prosperity" with members of the House Budget Committee at Capitol Hill in WashingtonThat’s like a general calling off an offensive at the last minute for lack of troops. What, can’t anybody count?

Actually, it’s not just a matter of addition and subtraction. Boehner’s plight is the result of forces in U.S. politics that have made the plums of another age — choice committee assignments, extra staff members, bridge repairs in the home district, even, yes, special parking spaces — less important than face time on television or a timely contribution from the neo-bosses of the 21st century, like the billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch.

What’s more, the surest method to impose discipline — ruthless political payback — appears to have gone the way of the smoke-filled room. When Boehner finally moved ahead with a debt-relief bill, only 28 Republicans voted in favor. More than 200 voted no — including the chairman of the House Budget Committee, Representative Paul Ryan (R-Wis.).

Ryan owes his choice assignment to Boehner. Yet Ryan thought nothing of voting against the speaker’s own bill and his expressed wishes. It’s easy to imagine how Thomas Platt, a New York Republican boss in the late 19th century, would have handled a similar failure to follow the speaker’s line.

“Merit and devotion should be rewarded,” Platt said, “Demerit and treachery should be condemned and examples made of those guilty of them.”

Platt went on to explain that those who sought favors from him had to “stand when hitched.” If they didn’t, he would “mercilessly administer punishment to a subordinate. Only in this way can the discipline of any body of men be enforced.”

PlattImposing discipline on legislators and party activists requires the sort of steely-eyed determination that Platt and Lyndon B. Johnson had in spades. Were they in Boehner’s place today, it’s hard to imagine that Ryan still would be sitting for interviews as chairman of the House Budget Committee.

More likely, he’d be packing his few remaining office fixtures and moving to a closet-sized space somewhere in the bowels of the Cannon House Office Building.

That’s how you impose discipline.

More than a half-century ago, when Johnson was at the height of his power as Senate majority leader, his colleague from Minnesota (and his future running mate), Hubert Humphrey, announced he would  support a rules change making it easier to end filibusters. Johnson was determined to preserve the filibuster,  which Southern senators traditionally used to block civil rights legislation, while at the same time crafting a civil rights bill that Southerners couldn’t kill. It was a delicate act, wonderfully recreated in Robert Caro’s The Years of Lyndon Johnson: Master of the Senate.

Humphrey quickly found himself cut off from Johnson and all other Senate leaders. When he tried to explain himself, Johnson delivered an icy reply. “You broke faith with me,” he said.

Several days later, a chastened Humphrey announced that he would no longer engage in pointless opposition to the Senate’s rules. What was important, he said, was getting a civil rights bill passed. His access to power was restored.

In our age of political paralysis, Johnson is undergoing a renaissance. There’s a new Broadway play, All the Way, centered on Johnson’s legislative achievements (and failures) as president in 1964, including passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. As a legislative leader in the 1950s, Johnson used his substantial physical presence — he stood 6 feet, 4 inches — his command of detail and his understanding of human nature to get what he wanted.

Lyndon_Johnson_and_Richard_RussellUntil Johnson became Senate majority leader in 1955, the body’s Rules Committee carried out the mundane task of assigning offices and parking spaces. That wouldn’t do — not in Johnson’s Senate. During his years as leader, he — not a committee — decided who parked where and who had the better office space. His colleagues noticed.

According to another Johnson biographer, Robert Dallek, Johnson once claimed that legislative leaders had no real power over the rank and file — save for the power of persuasion. Presidents, he said, could fire Cabinet members. But the majority leader can’t fire a fellow legislator.

Perhaps not. But strong leaders have found ways of maintaining discipline even without that ultimate power Johnson identified and surely would have used.

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, for example, a pair of strong-willed Republican senators — William Allison of Iowa and Nelson Aldrich of Rhode Island — used their power as chairman of the Senate Republican Conference to reward party regulars with choice committee assignments. If a GOP senator dared to go rogue, as today’s Tea Party members regularly do, they could expect long tenure on the Committee on the Irrigation and Reclamation of Arid Lands. A dry business, to be sure.

Johnson also used the power of committee assignments to keep his house in order. When Tennessee’s Estes Kefauver, for example, voted against Johnson on a procedural matter involving civil rights legislation, he was denied a seat on the Foreign Relations Committee. But his colleague from Tennessee, Albert Gore, voted with Johnson. He was given a coveted place on the Senate Finance Committee.

Johnson was not adverse to old-fashioned intimidation. When a group of Republicans and dissident Democrats insisted on a roll-call vote on Johnson’s motion to adjourn — usually the prerogative of the majority leader — Johnson stood at his desk with a clipboard. When a senator voted against adjournment, Johnson made a big show of writing down the offender’s name.

This “act of less than subtle intimidation had its desired effect,” Robert Caro wrote. “At the end of the vote, there were only 18 names [written] on the paper.”

fdr-waving-hatPresidents, too, have tried their hand at party discipline — but with less than satisfactory results. In 1938, President Franklin D. Roosevelt decided to target several senior congressional Democrats who had opposed New Deal legislation or his failed Supreme Court-packing proposal in 1937. Roosevelt recruited and campaigned for pro-New Deal Democratic insurgents in a bare-knuckle attempt to purge the party of skeptics and dissidents.

Just two years removed from a stunning reelection victory, Roosevelt assumed his popularity would translate into support for his chosen candidates. But this attempt to impose discipline in the harshest way possible backfired. Virtually every one of the Democrats that FDR had targeted was victorious. The only loser was Manhattan Representative John O’Connor, a fierce New Deal critic and, surprisingly, the brother of Roosevelt’s law partner and friend, Basil O’Connor.

Roosevelt may have failed to achieve ideological discipline, at least at first, but historian Susan Dunn has argued that the attempted purge had the effect of rebranding the Democrats as the party of liberalism.

Some Democrats had hoped that Barack Obama might summon the spirit of FDR, circa 1938, shortly after winning the presidency in 2008. That year, Connecticut Senator Joe Lieberman, an independent who caucused with the Democrats, endorsed and campaigned for Republican presidential candidate, Senator John McCain (R-Ariz.). With Democrats in control of the Senate, many expected Lieberman to be stripped of his chairmanship on the important Senate Homeland Security Committee. But the newly elected Obama, who won office as a candidate of change, prevailed on his fellow Democrats to keep Lieberman in his post.

It’s hard to imagine Johnson or Platt tolerating that kind of apostasy. But in the new age of political free agents, who care less about perks and access to power, traditional forms of persuasion and intimidation have lost their power.

Maybe mockery is all Boehner has left.


PHOTO (TOP): House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) holds a news conference at the Republican National Committee offices on Capitol Hill in Washington, October 23, 2013. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

PHOTO (INSERT 1): House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) speaks during a news conference of the House Budget Committee at Capitol Hill in Washington, March 20, 2012. REUTERS/Jose Luis

PHOTO (INSERT 2): Thomas Platt WIKIMEDIA/Commons

PHOTO (INSERT 3): Lyndon B. Johnson and Senator Russell Long WIKIMEDIA/Commons

PHOTO (INSERT 3): Franklin D. Roosevelt campaigning at Soldier’s Field in Chicago, October 28, 1944. REUTERS/Franklin D. Roosevelt Library


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